Controlling panics with std::panic

Minimum Rust version: 1.9

There is a std::panic module, which includes methods for halting the unwinding process started by a panic:


#![allow(unused)]
fn main() {
use std::panic;

let result = panic::catch_unwind(|| {
    println!("hello!");
});
assert!(result.is_ok());

let result = panic::catch_unwind(|| {
    panic!("oh no!");
});
assert!(result.is_err());
}

In general, Rust distinguishes between two ways that an operation can fail:

  • Due to an expected problem, like a file not being found.
  • Due to an unexpected problem, like an index being out of bounds for an array.

Expected problems usually arise from conditions that are outside of your control; robust code should be prepared for anything its environment might throw at it. In Rust, expected problems are handled via the Result type, which allows a function to return information about the problem to its caller, which can then handle the error in a fine-grained way.

Unexpected problems are bugs: they arise due to a contract or assertion being violated. Since they are unexpected, it doesn't make sense to handle them in a fine-grained way. Instead, Rust employs a "fail fast" approach by panicking, which by default unwinds the stack (running destructors but no other code) of the thread which discovered the error. Other threads continue running, but will discover the panic any time they try to communicate with the panicked thread (whether through channels or shared memory). Panics thus abort execution up to some "isolation boundary", with code on the other side of the boundary still able to run, and perhaps to "recover" from the panic in some very coarse-grained way. A server, for example, does not necessarily need to go down just because of an assertion failure in one of its threads.

It's also worth noting that programs may choose to abort instead of unwind, and so catching panics may not work. If your code relies on catch_unwind, you should add this to your Cargo.toml:

[profile.dev]
panic = "unwind"

[profile.release]
panic = "unwind"

If any of your users choose to abort, they'll get a compile-time failure.

The catch_unwind API offers a way to introduce new isolation boundaries within a thread. There are a couple of key motivating examples:

  • Embedding Rust in other languages
  • Abstractions that manage threads
  • Test frameworks, because tests may panic and you don't want that to kill the test runner

For the first case, unwinding across a language boundary is undefined behavior, and often leads to segfaults in practice. Allowing panics to be caught means that you can safely expose Rust code via a C API, and translate unwinding into an error on the C side.

For the second case, consider a threadpool library. If a thread in the pool panics, you generally don't want to kill the thread itself, but rather catch the panic and communicate it to the client of the pool. The catch_unwind API is paired with resume_unwind, which can then be used to restart the panicking process on the client of the pool, where it belongs.

In both cases, you're introducing a new isolation boundary within a thread, and then translating the panic into some other form of error elsewhere.